During difficult economic times, organizations that provide essential health services to those in need face extraordinary challenges. They grapple with cutbacks in funding because everyone is trying to manage with fewer resources.
At the same time, the need for services increases as families struggle to cope with job losses and a lack of health insurance.
How a community reaches out to those in need during difficult economic times is a measure of its character. In Thurston County, we are fortunate to have a safety net organization that steps forward to improve the health of our community, even when times are tough.
CHOICE Regional Health Network is a nonprofit coalition of hospitals, health care providers, public health and community health centers. CHOICE works to bridge the gap among providers and deliver coordinated health care to patients in need. For 15 years, CHOICE has tackled numerous challenges facing the health care industry in Grays Harbor, Mason, Lewis, Thurston and Pacific counties. From doctor shortages to emergency room overcrowding, CHOICE brings together health care leaders from throughout the area to solve common problems. The result is a healthier community, and everyone benefits. CHOICE’s most recent accomplishment was stepping up to rescue the Access to Baby and Child Dentistry program.
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Recognizing that oral health is an essential component of overall health, CHOICE decided not to let this highly successful program become a victim of reduced public health funding.
ABCD is a cost-effective approach for ensuring that dental disease prevention is available to Medicaid-eligible children from birth to age six. This early intervention results in a lifetime of better oral health for children and reduces future treatment costs. The child dentistry program has received national acclaim for success in improving access to care. A true private/public partnership, the program was established with the help of private foundation money — a three-year startup grant from nonprofit Washington Dental Service Foundation. The child dentistry program leverages contributions from local funders with state funds and federal Medicaid dollars.
CHOICE is working with dentists to provide care to young children and helping to connect low-income families with dental care. It is an affordable way to provide essential preventive dental care to children in need and reduce long-term health care costs. Healthy baby teeth are an important part of a child’s overall health.
Although almost totally preventable, dental disease is a significant health problem in our area and throughout the state. Dental disease can be intensely painful, costly and lead to other serious health problems. Dental problems are the No. 1 reason uninsured patients visit hospital emergency rooms for a health issue not generally classified as an emergency. This places a burden on already overcrowded emergency rooms and is expensive for families. Hospitals, taxpayers and consumers often have to cover the costs for the uninsured. In 2009, the Medicaid program spent more than $55 million in Washington to treat children’s dental disease. This is a tremendous amount of taxpayer money that is spent treating a disease that is preventable. Much of this expense could be avoided through increased prevention and access to care.
CHOICE recognized the importance of making sure that children have access to preventive dental care. For their vision and leadership, CHOICE recently received the Oral Health Hero award from the Washington Dental Service Foundation.
As a community, we have a responsibility and a financial incentive to provide dental care before someone’s overall health is impaired. Increasing access to care and preventing dental disease is a wise investment. Preventing dental disease — and the associated pain and expense — is the right thing to do.
Irene Hunter DDS, has a dental practice in Tenino and is a member of the Thurston County Dental Society and a board member of Washington Dental Service Foundation. She can be reached at email@example.com.